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Fewer ‘friends,’ more coffee


Fewer ‘friends,’ more coffee

Feb 06, 2023 | 4:00 am ET
By George Ayoub
Fewer ‘friends,’ more coffee
(Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

As Nebraska’s three House members voted to gut the Congressional Office of Ethics and add $114 billion to the deficit and Nebraska State Sen. Steve Erdman dissed George Norris, I was celebrating being Facebook free, lightening my already reedy-thin social media footprint.

A non sequitur? Hardly. While the percentage has recently declined, research shows that nearly half of all Americans get their news from social media, with Facebook the most popular platform.

My divorce took a month. Part of the settlement is that Facebook keeps all the data I ever posted, sure a trifle in the cyber universe. I also gave up “friends,” likes and a couple billion potential Zuckerbergian connections.

Not that I ever had a meaningful relationship with Facebook. I was a lurker, parlance for which I was well-suited, eschewing Facebook friends with the details of my life because too much of my “community” were people I only knew online … what we used to call total strangers.

And, judging by the posts of a few about politics, culture, race and the price of eggs, the annulment was well overdue. When they were online, I never worried a Phi Beta Kappa meeting was going to break out.

Nor am I a recluse. In 25 years of writing commentary for newspapers, both ink-stained and digital, I have probably revealed more about myself than readers needed or wanted to know. I fall short of an open book, but when you show up three or four times a week for years at readers’ breakfast tables, spouting your observations about the world, after a while you’re in a relationship … not friends but in a relationship.

I do have this Facebook story: When my mother died — and I reluctantly posted it on Facebook — an onslaught of digital condolences from Facebook friends arrived. Many mourners never knew my mother, so the posts, while sweet, were a little creepy. A strange sense of community ensued, however, prompting a column about Facebook, part mea culpa for all the snarky things I’d said in print about cat videos, crackpots and conspiracy theories, staples of Zuckerberg’s little invention.

My rehabilitation was short-lived. I never got the whole Facebook friends thing. I need body language, voice inflection, eye contact, or a conversation at Starbucks over coffee. Too old to get it? Probably. But then came the hacks (you meet the nicest people online) and a new wave of wackadoodle thinking. So I pulled the plug, dismissing a few hundred friends (I quit accepting requests years ago) and dropping out of whatever communities to which I belonged. None come to mind.

That left me with a trio of social media accounts, two of which — Snapchat and Instagram — I essentially never used. Twitter is an information source on which I’ve come to depend, as many professional journalists use it. That said, I’m a reluctant user, tweeting links to my Nebraska Examiner commentary, but otherwise only liking and retweeting voices with whom I find favor. That’s been my history on Twitter, my account required by former editors.

Twitter remains my singular connection to the world of social media platforms, where friends meet, ideas are discussed and promoted, lies shared and promulgated and, if you’re so moved, insurrections planned.

But I’m barely hanging on. New Twitter owner Elon Musk has nearly dismantled the company, reinstated accounts promoting harm, canceled accounts of some who have publicly disagreed with him and drastically reduced the number of content editors. The upshot is coarsened, more convoluted conversations pockmarked with racial epithets, a game of footsie with violence, and assorted nonsense passing as truth. Musk himself retweeted a fringy bit of horse hockey after Nancy Pelosi’s husband was attacked in their home.

The good news is that Twitter’s four million or so users is miniscule compared to Facebook’s billions (now minus one). Still, for those of us in the information business, a robust and healthy Twitter — especially one committed to the truth — can move the needle in the right direction for a democracy where data, facts, science and the ability to think about them help keep us free. Especially a democracy where social media is a prime source of news.

Who knows? Maybe Musk will suspend my account after this commentary runs, eliminating my social media footprint altogether. That would be too bad because social media holds endless possibilities to inform, instruct and entertain.

I think.

We could meet at Starbucks and talk about it.